5 ways psychology can help you build great products

25 January 2016 | Masimba Sagwete | About a 5 minute read
Tags: Academy, Decision Making, Digital, Product Owners, Psychology


How decisions are presented subconsciously affects our choices. Because it’s subconscious, users can tell you what they think drives their decisions, but a lot of the time, they don’t actually understand it themselves. It can only really be understood by observation and experimentation although formulating what to test relies on understanding how the human brain works. Heuristics (mental shortcuts) and cognitive biases affect all our decisions. Knowing this will help us understand why some design ideas have been so successful.


  1. ‘Chunking’ to remove the burden of choice

Describing the bewildering options now available to any modern shopper looking for jeans – straight, regular, boot-cut, relaxed, skinny, colours other than blue – Barry Schwartz suggests in his TED talk, “I want the cut of jeans I used to get when you could only get one.” A little choice is better than no choice but we are easily overwhelmed. Citymapper does this well and you’re only ever choosing between walk/cab/tube/bus or between 5 routes in each sub-category. Strive to reduce the number of options you put in front of the user and they’ll reward you by converting more.


  1. Amazon recommends the bandwagon effect

Like this psychology today article illustrates, choice is only a burden until we are reassured we’ve made the right one. Ever since Amazon gave the world ‘Other people also bought…’, it’s appeared everywhere but the reason why it works isn’t only because people who buy fridges also tend to buy dryers. It’s actually mainly because we interpret the majority of people making the same choice as evidence that it is a good choice, a heuristic imaginatively called ‘the bandwagon effect’. Hence the adage, ‘noone ever got fired for buying IBM’.


  1. Irrational escalation and profile completion percentage

The ‘web psychologist’ Nathalie Nahai describes the ‘endowed progress effect’ in her book – Webs of Influence: The Secret Strategies That Make Us Click. This is the idea that getting feedback on progress towards a goal makes us more committed to achieving the goal. Nunes & Dreze observed this at a car wash where some participants received a loyalty card that had 10 spaces with two of them pre-stamped and another group that had cards with 8 spaces. Those with the pre-stamped card were more likely to get the end. Similarly, if you log in to LinkedIn and were told your profile was 0% complete, you’d be less likely to get to 100% than if you were told it was 20%.


  1. Hyperbolic discounting and the free trial

If you’ve ever said, ‘I’ll never drink so much again’ then you understand  hyperbolic discounting. This is our tendency to favour decisions with consequences deferred to the future. Nowhere is this more evident than in Typeform which allows you to immediately start creating a form, without having to sign up. You know you’ll have to register at some point but the ability to defer that chore into the future makes you more likely to start creating a form.


  1. Anchoring and the decoy effect

In ‘Predictably irrational,’ Dan Ariely demonstrates – through the now famous example of pricing at the Economist – that the context in which the price is shown is sometimes more important than the actual price itself.

Screen Shot 2016-01-25 at 14.10.00


Simply removing the middle option reduced the number of people who chose the print & web subscription from 84% to 32%. Goods don’t have an inherent value so we rely on comparison to calculate it. This is why the ‘magic of 3’ pricing you can see on virtually every SaaS pricing page has been so successful. Some options exist purely to force comparison, anchor you to a price point and make the product they actually want you to buy more attractive.



Rory Sutherland asks, when ergonomics is devoted to making physical products work with our biological hardware – think our hands and steering wheels – why we don’t design products to work with our psychology. These five are the tip of the iceberg and Irrational Labs even have a 22-part course on the subject. They say, ‘When we understand human behavior, we can build and sell products that change lives;” Rory Sutherland says,’the next revolution will be psychological not technological.’


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